Before "Steve Jobs," there was "Pirates of Silicon Valley": What a made-for-tv movie got right that Aaron Sorkin didn't

The 1999 film set the standard for films about the personal computer revolution

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published October 26, 2015 7:37PM (EDT)

Noah Wyle and Anthony Michael Hall in "Pirates of Silicon Valley"   (Turner Network Television)
Noah Wyle and Anthony Michael Hall in "Pirates of Silicon Valley" (Turner Network Television)

As the new biopic “Steve Jobs” continues to receive rave reviews, it seems appropriate to stop and take a look at its predecessor —  the “Citizen Kane” of made-for-TV movies, “Pirates of Silicon Valley.” I’m not simply comparing this film to “Citizen Kane” as a way of drawing attention to its quality. Much like Orson Welles’ 1941 magnum opus based loosely on the life of William Randolph Hearst, Martyn Burke’s 1999 motion picture is at its core the tale of how massive business empires can be built and destroyed by the egos and weaknesses of their creators’. That said, there are two key differences between these films:

  1. “Pirates of Silicon Valley” focuses on two personalities, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, instead of just one.
  2. “Pirates of Silicon Valley” is surprisingly accurate.

Obviously it would be a stretch to say that “Pirates of Silicon Valley” is as accurate as a documentary – this is a Hollywood dramatization, after all – but it certainly didn't get much of the flak leveled at “Steve Jobs,” either. “Sorkin chose to cherry-pick and exaggerate some of the worst aspects of Jobs' character, and to focus on a period of his career when he was young and immature,” complains Walt Mossberg of The Verge (who also found some "Citizen Kane" parallels in the Jobs biopic approach), while Laurene Powell (Jobs’ widow) condemned it as “fiction.” By contrast, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (who was a consultant on the new Jobs biopic) praised “Pirates of Silicon Valley” for being surprisingly close to the mark. “"One of the things is, yes, it not only captures inside of Steve Jobs,” Wozniak explained to Business Insider. “It’s the events that occurred and what was their meaning in the development of computers and 'Pirates of Silicon Valley' was intriguing, interesting. I loved watching it."

This trait of “Pirates of Silicon Valley” is best captured in the two scenes that bookend the film. As it opens, we see Noah Wyle as Steve Jobs talk directly to the camera about the importance of the personal computer revolution. To him and many of the other PC revolutionaries, this wasn’t just an ambitious business venture. “We’re here to make a dent in the universe,” he intones. “Otherwise, why even be here?” As the shot pans back, we see that he’s talking to Ridley Scott (best known then for directing “Alien” and “Blade Runner”), who is in the process of shooting the legendary “1984” commercial that introduced the world to what would soon become the first popular personal computer.

Then we flash forward a decade-and-a-half, during which time Jobs is being hired back by Apple – from which he will be fired by the expiration of the film’s running time – by none other than his nemesis Bill Gates himself (brilliantly captured by Anthony Michael Hall). The image of Gates looms over Jobs, deliberately evoking the Big Brother imagery to which we had been introduced mere moments ago, with Jobs barely concealing his inner anguish as he plasters a fake smile on his face and pretends he is delighted to be reunited with the Microsoft founder. For all intents and purposes, the rest of the movie will cover how Jobs managed to be transformed from the man who imagined himself destroying Big Brother to the man who would be forced to capitulate to Big Brother – and learn to love it.

Of course, if “Pirates of Silicon Valley” was merely an exploration of personalities, it would be intriguing – but perhaps not quite great. What truly elevates it above the run of normal biopics is that it never loses sight of the greater significance of what its principles are doing. At one point in the film, as Jobs and Wozniak run through the University of Berkeley circa 1971 (i.e., in the full throes of countercultural upheaval), Jobs remarks that “those guys think they're revolutionaries. They're not revolutionaries, we are.” This theme pervades the motion picture – not merely an awe of computers, but a recognition that its creators realized they were going to change the world. For Jobs, the personal computer revolution was a religious crusade; for Gates, a ripe business adventure; for Wozniak and Paul Allen (depicted here as Gates’ number two, with a comic relief Steve Ballmer close at his heels), it’s a nerdy enthusiasm. All of them, however, see something that no one else can recognize – the potential for personal computers to completely transform how we live our lives – and how that realization shaped their personalities, and with it history.

Unfortunately, there was a darker side to the PC revolution, which is why the word “Pirates” appears in the title of “Pirates of Silicon Valley.” While Jobs and Gates were indisputably brilliant men, they did not invent much of the technology that is widely attributed to them. No, the credit for those innovations belongs to countless obscure men and women – many of them employees at Xerox, which paid them to create marvels and then refused to make bank on their work because it didn’t appreciate what they had. Jobs realized this and, characteristically, charmed Xerox into forcing its resentful employees to share the fruits of their labors with the self-entitled Jobs, who thought nothing of harvesting their bounty and acting like he had cultivated it himself. This brings us to the other scene that captures the essence of this movie’s greatness, an exchange between Jobs and Gates after the former realizes the latter has been stealing his innovations (much as Jobs did to the hapless Xerox employees), which I dare not quote here for risk of spoiling it for others. Suffice to say this much: This is as much a film about intellectual theft, and the grandiose egotism necessary to morally justify such actions, as it is about genius and inspiration and the world-changing technology they wrought.

The greatness of “Pirates of Silicon Valley” lies in the fact that it manages to brilliantly balance all of these elements into a single hour-and-a-half long narrative, paying tribute to the achievements of its subjects without excessively glorifying or vilifying them. While audiences will need to decide whether “Steve Jobs” performs a comparable feat (Wozniak has praised the new film — not as effusively as he did “Pirates,” perhaps, but at least he didn’t dismiss it as “crap” like he did the Ashton Kutcher vehicle “Jobs”), it’s fair to say that “Pirates of Silicon Valley” established the standard that all worthy movies about the computer revolution will need to follow. Its themes are the themes not only of these particular stories, but of our era in history as a whole. To understand our time, we need to understand the feats and foibles that helped create it, and so far no work of art has done this better than “Pirates of Silicon Valley.”

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Aaron Sorkin Movies Pirates Of Silicon Valley Steve Jobs